This post outlines an emerging direction in my thinking and which I believe needs to be further developed: a sociology of knowledge practices. This sociology would mobilise social theory and adopt a view of humans consistent with sociological understandings in seeking to better understand a particular set of human activities: ‘knowledge practices.’
Two recent theoretical and empirical turns in social research inform this:
- Work in fields like cognitive sociology and moral psychology which argues that relevant mental acts (e.g. interpreting, attending, etc) and other behaviours (e.g. involved in doing and evaluating research) are performed by social beings, not simply specific individuals. For example, Eviatar Zerubavel argues human beings are members of ‘thought communities’ and this shapes how such acts are performed by these individuals. Similarly, Jonathan Haidt has explored how social membership and moral commitments can blind members of groups to certain facts; and
- Recent work on social knowledge practices (see the excellent book Social Knowledge in the Making) which theories and attends to how knowledge-making practices, knowledge-appraisal practices and knowledge-using practices tend to be “thoroughly configured by the social worlds that they inhabit” (Camic et al, 2011, p.10).
More broadly, sociologists such as Harry Collins have proposed that the sociological perspective is grounded in a unique ontology. Such an ontology (as proposed by Collins) asserts that human individuals are made out of the collectivities they belong to and share with others. This is part of what is meant by the idea that human beings are ‘social beings’. Collins further argues that sociology studies related forms of life – that is, “distinctive and irreducible ways of being in the world” (Collins, 2019, p.5).
One thing that prompted me to further consider the need for a sociology of knowledge practices is my doctoral research (link) in which I used the concept of knowledge practices.
Another aspect is my emerging sense that in the current social context it often seems to be getting hard to find the truth or, rather, to try to figure it out and find ‘pragmatic’ solutions to problems. Moreover, it seems to be getting harder to develop a shared sense of the truth. This latter aspect might be the more important point. Members of different social groups often seem to reach very different conclusions based on the same data, and/or they variously emphasise certain facts but ignore others. And perceptions of reality often seem to diverge strongly from what the available evidence appears to show.
Perhaps greater self-awareness – enabled by a new appreciation that is informed and underpinned by a sociology of knowledge practices – could help to remedy such a situation and turn down the ‘volume’ of debate and conflict where it gets in the way of finding the truth, etc. For example, better understanding how, when and why people stray from naive ideals (in the processing of information, etc) might support this process. Fields like moral psychology are relevant but a sociology of knowledge practices might help.
A key methodological question is how we might advance such a sociology.
Harry Collins’s work suggests one possible approach. He argues that sociology is about groups and suggests that the sociologist should be a participatory investigator, whereby the sociologist aims to understand a group by becoming a member of it – a methodological move that he terms immersion. (He also argues that two subsequent moves are required: estranging oneself and then explaining to others). In brief, “the fundamental method […] is in a sense “subjective”: the research goes into the target community, becomes socialized, and then returns and tries to explain what it felt like” (Collins, 2019, p.19).
The above approach starts with specific collectivities of humans such as scientists, environmentalists, climate change researchers, climate change deniers/skeptics, descent pathway/degrowth advocates, and so on. The process involves the following steps:
- Identify the focal group;
- Aim to become a member of the group;
- Via the process of socialisation seek to acquire “the typical understandings associated with the form of life”; and
- Stand back from the group (estrangement) and reflect: “you have to learn to stand far enough back from what you know and reflect on it with enough skill to come to know what you know in self-conscious way” (Collins, 2019, p.17).
My doctoral thesis also suggests that detailed case studies of notable practice examples is another approach, but it also has limitations. In this study I attempted to be more objective in designing an impact evaluation which sought to carefully characterise and assess actor practices and the impacts they subsequently gave rise to. This approach would start with selecting a focal practice and then design a study which examines it.
It might be possible to focus on a key individual of interest though doing so sociologically will be a challenge. Neil Gross’s book Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher potentially offers an illustrative example of a study focussed on one person.
Perhaps it might also be possible to use autoethnography. Studies using such research methods focus on describing and systematically analysing your personal experience.
Critical knowledge practice studies?
Finally, it might also be possible to develop some ‘critical’ directions in the study of knowledge practices. For example, in addition to work seeking to contribute to understanding a given ‘form of life’ (as per Collins), or explaining specific practices and their outcomes (as per Fligstein et al, 2017), sociological research examining knowledge practices could evaluate actor practices – e.g. guided by specific ideals or criteria – or could explicitly seek to help achieve normative goals (such as those associated with critical theory).
Such inquiry could seek inspiration from the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), which examines the origins, dynamics and consequences of science (as well as technology) in specific cultural, social or historical contexts, as I did in my Master’s thesis. STS scholars typically seek to achieve conventional intellectual aims and change in the service of wider goals. However, it would question whether scientists should be the sole or major focus. A wider range of actors and their practices could be the focus on such inquiry.
Indeed, such research could seek to examine wider issues and problems associated with the information age and/or knowledge economies, and new forms of social behaviour and problems that have emerged in this contemporary social context.